Council’s bid to quash question time

By Rowan Forster

Cardinia Shire wants to abolish the only remaining avenue whereby ratepayers can seek unrehearsed, spontaneous answers from bureaucrats.

If a recommendation by officers to ban supplementary questions is passed, all community queries would be filtered by the council in advance.

It would result in responses being pre-prepared and carefully considered.

According to a report released this week, the change is being proposed because Cardinia Shire has committed to webcasting council meetings.

The council fears impromptu comments broadcasted online could defame individuals and result in claims for libel and slander.

Cardinia would follow in the footsteps of the Casey and Greater Dandenong municipalities, which have both barred supplementary questions.

Author Doug Evans outlined the issues involved as a result of the web streaming initiative.

“The webcasting does expose a councillor or staff member to a possible action of defamation by the publishing of the webcast, as it is the publication of the insult or thing said that is actionable,” he said, in the report.

“The increased risk is created due to the much wider audience created by the webcasting.

“There is a risk associated with allowing supplementary questions during Community Question time as the Council is not aware of what comments may be made during such a supplementary question.

“Obviously if comments are made at a meeting with no public gallery and the meeting is not webcast and the comments made receive no publicity it is unlikely that any action would be brought.”

The council used to webcast meetings in the past, but stopped because it did not have defamation insurance.

It then reverted to releasing audio from meetings in a podcast the following day.

Secretary of the Lakeside Residents Group Tony O’Hara described the proposition as “extremely unfair”.

He believes if the council is so concerned about legal action, it should temporarily disable webcasting for the community questions segment.

“It’s quite irresponsible of them trying to stop people having a say in the public arena,” he said.

“I usually ask my questions on the day and I find it’s a very well-rehearsed response and sometimes I would like the questions to be answered at that point in time, which is what the supplementary question is so useful for.

“Sometimes the scripted response provided by council doesn’t even answer the question.”

During Cardinia Shire council meetings in April and May, community question time descended into chaos, with residents interrupting councillors, asking multiple questions and failing to leave the stand.

Mr O’Hara suspects that may have something to do with council’s decision.

“People went overboard and took over and the mayor didn’t stop them,” he said.

“They need to take control.”

The matter will be voted on by councillors at Monday’s ordinary meeting.

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